Yesterday, we visited our elderly neighbour, whose wife died nearly two years ago. We often feel guilty that we don’t visit more often, but Monsieur F is almost 90 and now rather frail. He is very difficult to understand, even after 20 years’ acquaintance: the combination of the local accent and his absence of teeth don’t help. He is also hard of hearing and we have to converse through my husband, since our neighbour can’t hear my lighter voice.
Monsieur F is fortunate in some ways, more so than many others. The whole hamlet is occupied by the same family: Monsieur F still lives in the main farmhouse, his sister-in-law owns the house over the road, one son has built himself a bungalow nearby and the granddaughter, her husband and two small children have recently converted the bergerie into a dwelling. His physical needs are catered for: an aide ménagère comes three times a week, cleans the house and prepares his meals.
Attitude to old age
And yet Monsieur F admitted to us before Christmas that he feels lonely. He believes that being older than his wife, he should have died first. And he told us that, apart from his family, the only visits he gets are from us and another person who lives here part-time. I felt upset on his behalf. He has lived in the area all his life and knows just about everyone, but none of them spares half-an-hour to come to talk to him.
They seem to have written him off. It is clearly not the custom to visit elderly neighbours, whose age and infirmity must be swept under the carpet or simply left to the family to sort out. Worse, he seems to have written himself off. He rarely ventures outside, even onto the covered balcony, and often stays in bed late in the morning. He has consigned himself to what I call God’s waiting room.
A useful role
Formerly, things were different in rural areas. Generations of families lived in the same house. While this might sometimes have been cramped and difficult, at least it gave the older people a function. The grandparents helped out where they could, taught the younger ones what they knew and were a fount of wisdom and local knowledge. In return, they were looked after when they grew infirm. Farrebique, the documentary we saw recently, shot in Aveyron in the late 1940s, showed that this social model was still going strong.
Things have changed. The land employs vastly fewer hands now, people move away to find jobs and the old people are left behind – hence the growth in the number of maisons de retraite.
Fount of local knowledge
Monsieur F is one of the last of a vanishing breed. He lived through World War II and has probably seen more change in the past 90 years than his forebears did in a thousand. He is a living repository of knowledge about rural life as it was. Yesterday, apart from the awful weather, which is the main topic of current conversation hereabouts, we talked about some of the things that have changed, simple things, such as la chasse (hunting) and what eau de vie was made from locally (one man used figs, we heard, and not the customary plums).
On other occasions, we’ve talked about the change in the weather from when he was a boy (much more snow then), how the fashion for taking apéritifs is relatively new and what they did to celebrate Christmas when he was young. These are not subjects of earth-shattering significance, but they give us a glimpse of a way of life that has all but disappeared.
Of course, these topics may not be of great interest to local people. And, if they don’t visit our neighbour, who knows what tensions and disputes might be at the root of it? We know very well that French local politics run along fault lines of personal enmity or amity that go back generations. Wartime denunciations still rankle among families when the protagonists are long dead. Step on those viper’s nests at your peril.
Even so, I think it’s a pity that someone like Monsieur F, who is endowed with intelligence, shrewdness and humour, still, should spend the last part of his life feeling isolated. And there are no doubt many more like him.
The Shakespeare scholars among you will recognise the quotation in the title from Macbeth. I had intended to write this post anyway, but by a strange coincidence fellow blogger Osyth, who is also implanted in France, wrote a post along similar lines this week. I always enjoy reading her blog, which is sensitive and insightful.
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